In modern usage, an aquamanile (plural aquamanilia or simply aquamaniles) is a ewer or jug-type vessel in the form of one or more animal or human figures. It usually contained water for the washing of hands (aqua + manos) over a basin, which was part of both upper-class meals and the Christian Eucharist. Historically the term was sometimes used for any basin or ewer so used, regardless of shape. Most surviving examples are in metal, typically copper alloys (brass or bronze), as pottery versions have rarely survived.
Persian aquamaniles predate any zoomorphic aquamaniles known in Europe. An Iranian (Abbasid caliphate), Aquamanile in the form of an eagle, bearing the date 180 AH/CE 796-797, of bronze, inlaid with silver and copper, in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, is the earliest dated Islamic object in metalwork. Among the latest in date is one also at the State Hermitage Museum, a late Islamic aquamanile from Khorasan, dated 1206.Islamic law deprecated the use of such representational figures, and the Islamic zoomorphic aquamanile tradition died out.
However the tradition was taken up enthusiastically in Europe, where the form remained popular until the Renaissance.
The Byzantine Empire's cultural connections with Sassanid Persia and the Abbasid caliphate, never peaceful in the political sphere, nevertheless brought the aquamanile into the Christian Mediterranean world. The earliest European portable aquamaniles date to the eleventh century. Ewers and basins were needed in Christian liturgy for the ritual of the lavabo, in which the officiating priest washes his hands before vesting, again before the consecration of the Eucharist and after mass. As a ritual object, metal was considered more suitable than pottery, although most examples in pottery no doubt were broken and discarded. The aquamaniles made in the Mosan - or Meuse valley - region, using the brass alloy of silvery tint called dinanderie (from the center of its manufacture in the region of Dinant) were often fantastic and zoomorphic in their forms, which were constrained only by the need for a larger opening for filling the vessel and a spout for pouring. Church records inventory aquamaniles in silver or gilt copper, but the great majority of surviving examples are in base metals, which were not worth melting down.
As well as the altar, aquamaniles were used at the tables of the great, where extravagant designs of symbolic or fantastical beasts - lions were especially popular - were developed in purely secular iconography. A gold aquamanile, c. 1215, in the treasury of the cathedral at Aachen, takes the form of a man's bust; it is a rare survival of an aquamanile in a precious metal. An aquamanile (ref. Metropolitan Museum) in the form of Aristotle on hands and knees, being ridden by Phyllis, bore several moral lessons, with ribald undertones; such an aquamanile was distinctly secular in nature.
Bronze aquamaniles in the form of leopards were part of court ritual in Benin, where the concept may have arrived from the Islamic north. An 18th-century bronze leopard aquamanile from Benin is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
From the Renaissance elaborate versions of the conventional ewer were preferred to zoomorphic forms. A late version of the aquamanile was the silver-gilt mounted rider on a stand, bought in 1700 for the treasury of the Basilica of St-Denis and sold in 1798. Its form is recorded in an engraving by Félibien. (ref. St-Denis) The idea of ewers in fantastic shapes has never died out.
The following aquamanilia in public collections are set in approximate chronological order: